Letters from Venice – Part II

NB: What follows here are actual diary entries from 1982. Please forgive my youthful perspective!

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            We left for the airport on Tuesday, August 17, 1982, driven by Lee Benson, whose new Oldsmobile Cutlass introduced itself to us as a series of rattles, squeals and clatters. After a somewhat contortionist drive, we arrived at JFK, bought a ticket for Bob, and boarded the 7:00PM flight for London. In elegant form, while waiting in line for the ticket, I crouched down to find a more comfortable position with my 35 pound pack, and tumbled backwards with my jump suited, be-purpled legs flailing helplessly in the air. I knew it was going to be a long trip.

On the plane, we were delayed for an hour and a half, but once aloft, flew quite quickly to London. Our seatmate was a lovely English man named Adam, who insisted on treating us both to bottles of champagne in order to celebrate our trip to Edinburgh.

300px-KingsCrossWithMini.JPGUpon reaching London, we discovered at King’s Cross Station that the train trip to Edinburgh was L32; far beyond our means. Sought out a bus, then settled for the Night Rider, a L12 train leaving London at 10:00PM, arriving in Edinburgh at 5:45AM. Yikes!
Not having slept all night really, we went to nap in a waiting room where there proved to be three extremely loud and drunk assholes who were conducting some kind of “deal” which the entrance of an African disrupted. This interruption created a huge racial contest, refereed by another backpacker who yelled at them to shut up. She was chastised by the instructions – “Shut up, cunt!” Oh, the joys of human interactions.

The taxis are wonderful in London- glossy black sedans sometimes purple or brown, always whizzing by at breakneck speeds.image_mini

There is so much to learn. How to use the frigging telephones. How does one distinguish between a “rapid pip” and an “engaged” signal? Oh, for sleep aboard the Night Rider.telephone

August 18, 1982 King’s Cross

Sign in the Loo:

“Don’t blame the Loo lady for the Price

We work our hardest to keep them nice

Washing pans and mopping floors

Hearing all the banging doors

Clean toilets are our special task

A pleasant smile is all we ask!

Later, saw Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby St. – struck me like a mall version of Soho.

Dinner at Sagamantha, an Indian restaurant, which had a beacon above the front door, which was a rotating red police light, and where Bob and I, passing through Phase 3 of our exhaustion, lost it and started spewing water out in a fit of giggles!

If one thing will drive me nuts, though, it is the number of motorcycles. Every time I see one I think of Mark – and they all ride with leather jackets, which may cause considerable discomfort throughout the trip. I miss him…

Aug. 19, 1982

Edinburgh is delightful. We spent all night on the Night Rider, arriving at 5:30AM to the light of the new rising sun on the age-encrusted city of Edinburgh [ouch].

By our return to the downtown in the afternoon, the place was unrecognizable for the excited buzz of traffic and pedestrians scurrying around.

The tech staff/management at the YMCA, our venue for the first week, is incredibly accommodating and we spent three hours this evening in the space. All props and drops must be fireproofed so tomorrow we will do that.

Had my first spud with cheese (and Bob) at 9:50pm before a 10:00pm rehearsal – I hope to taste more leisurely taters laters…..

Letters from Venice -Part 1

June 2006 -This writing began while listening to “The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt. The book evoked so many memories of my 13 months living in Venice right after graduating from Princeton in 1982. It never ceases to amaze me how instantaneously an author can tap into your own experiences and start awakening memories of people and places long dormant and unexamined. His book, set in Venice, around the tragic fire at the Fenice Opera House in 1996, covered a time almost thirteen years after I had left Venice, and yet, his descriptions of the city and the politics and the society there unzippered my brain and unleashed my memories. Berendt discussed the curator of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Philip Rylands, and his wife, Jane Rylands extensively, whom I had met and worked with in Venice. Finishing the book, I was prompted to exhume the letters that my dear friend, Bob Stern had so kindly sent to me recently, saved and sent back almost 20 years later, and having digested those, I dug out my old Journal, “European Ventures!” begun Aug. 17th, 1982 as we left Princeton to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with 5 student-acted plays. We went with our drama teacher, Carol Elliot, and about 15-20 students. Bob Stern, my best friend, and I left for Edinburgh together. I have since gone to the ever-informative web to cut and paste images available to illustrate my adventures of acquiring my post-graduate degree in living. I’ve always been somewhat of an impulsive, pigheaded and fortunate girl – and, now at the age of fifty-three, I am reminded by world events which unfurl around us that indeed, life is only what you make of it, and how your perceive your success at making your life. It is, all too often and too predictably, being in the right place, opening the doors when opportunity knocks, all those clichés which have been drilled into our heads as children.  That time, now thirty years ago, was as magical and unexpected as any moment in my daily life now. Looking back through the miasma of time, if I strain hard enough, I can see in that reckless, twenty-one year old the seeds of who I am now, somewhat manic, terribly critical of myself, willing to take risks – and above all, a people pleaser.

I grew up in the Midwest, in a small rural town outside of Pittsburgh. Well enough outside of Pittsburgh, that the daily commute to the city vexed my father to the point of complete disinterest in making the trip any more, so that he relocated himself closer to work. This happened when I was about thirteen, and was painful at the time, but the seismic shift in our family structure also provided me with the first of many opportunities to come.

Shortly after my parents separated, my best friend, Liz, went off to boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. Now neither this specific fact, nor the concurrent divorce that my parents were working us all through would normally be considered particularly lucky, but the stressful confluence of events led to my being allowed to follow her the following year, to St. Paul’s School. This was one of the luckiest and happiest doors to open to me in my life, but you will see that it was only the first, and not nearly the last such lucky portal.

St. Paul’s is one of the best-endowed, most beautiful boarding schools in the United States, and this girl from Greensburg, PA took it by storm. I loved the classes, the dorms, the extra-curricular theater events that I became part of. Never a big sports person, I nevertheless rowed intramural crew, and kept generally fit, and overall loved the school.

The most influential teacher I had at St. Paul’s was without a doubt, Robert V. Edgar, English teacher, head of the drama program.  I began my stage management career working with Edgar on “Loot,” where my duties involved acquiring the manikin which appears as a prop in the play. I took this job very seriously, and went into Concord, went to a local haberdashery and somehow cajoled them into loaning the manikin to us, then carted it back to campus in a cab. Mr. Edgar believed in my skill as an actor, too. He supported my performance in Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett, my last year, as an Independent Study Project, buried up to my waist, then neck in a paper-Mache mound of dirt, spouting 60 some pages of monologue, with undoubtedly very little variety of tonal expression.

One morning, in my fifth form year, during breakfast in the large barn-like dining room at Upper Hall, I convinced my friend,Will Schwalbe, on a dare, to sneak upstairs with me into Middle Upper, the dorm where Edgar was a house master, and an all boy’s dorm, to knock on his door to wake him up. I’ll never forget coming in through the door way, and seeing the look of surprise on Artie Z’s face as he struggled wearing only his towel, to get back into his room from the shower. Without even reacting to the illegality of my being in a boy’s dorm, Edgar swung his door open, invited us in for coffee and the “Tutorial” began, a weekly opportunity to meet to discuss world events, or just SPS events, while we listened to classical music on Public Radio, or Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood on the turntable, if we were feeling silly, which we frequently were. The ranks of the Tutorial grew by only a few other students, since we considered the gathering to be elite. We were incorrigable intellectual snobs.  After Tutorial, at 7:55AM, we donned our coats, and all walked to chapel together, either through 5 foot snowdrifts lining the path, or through the verdent spring foliage lining the walkway from Upper.

Bob Edgar made us feel like adults, by valuing what we had to say, by laughing at our inane jokes, and by generally offering a droll, witty, smart role model for who we could be when we were finished with our educations. I really cherish those days, and credit them in no small way to my development into a life-long learner.

Cut to December of my 6th Form year at SPS. I had visited only three colleges in preparation for the application process- Stanford, Princeton, and Santa Cruz. When I sat down to it, I applied to Princeton early admission, with UC Santa Cruz as my back up school. In my typically irrational, impulsive manner, I eschewed Stanford because it was hot the day we visited there, and I didn’t like the architecture of the campus. Ridiculous youth.

My mother’s father had gone to Princeton, and had graduated with a degree in architecture in 1933. I had been successfully indoctrinated to the Princeton family over years of attending the Princeton vs. Yale football game with my Granddad, first taking lunch at Cottage Inn, on the “tailgate” of Grandad’s car, then sitting on the Princeton side of the stadium, cheering our team onto victory. Also, having been at St. Paul’s School’s similarly ivied halls for four years, I felt more comfortable on the campus of Princeton then just about anywhere else. It didn’t hurt that about 30 of my friends from St. Paul’s would be calling Princeton home for the next four years.

I plowed through the next four years pretty uneventfully, starting in the Woodrow Wilson School as a poli-sci major, and after one year, maybe even one semester, switching to the Art History department where I discovered a Friday morning slideshow/lecture on the History of Gardens was a successful antidote for a rowdy Thursday night at the pub. I liked the small scale of the Art History department, loved thinking about aesthetics and brush strokes, and enjoyed reading about the early contemporary artists and the choices they made forging new styles of painting. When senior year rolled around, I had become enamored with early twentieth century painters in the New York circle of Alfred Steiglitz, and was inspired to write my thesis on Georgia O’Keefe and John Marin and Arthur Dove, and their particularly American qualities. What intrigued me most then, and still does to this day, was the idea of a single person’s ability to be a catalyst for creativity, by providing a safe haven for creative thoughts and actions. Patrons of the arts fascinated me.

I also worked actively in the theatre at Princeton, not with the Triangle club, who produced musicals and musical revues, but in the small octagonally shaped bunker theatre in the center of the campus, right next door to the Art and Archeology department, Theatre Intime. There I worked on a number of shows, and the last two years, spent both summers on campus as a co-producer for the summer seasons we produced. It was a natural extension of Edgar’s Tutorial – producing and mounting our own fully realized shows for the paying public. The confidence we had in ourselves was staggering.

To support my academics and extra-curricular events, I had a financial aid package including moneys from my parents and grandparents, a scholarship (arranged through the generosity of my grandfather, from his classmates), student loans acquired through the bank in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where my Princeton grandfather lived, and a work-study job at the University. I had chosen to work in the food services division of the University, and spent my share of time peeling and chopping eggs in the Student Center, and making omelets and sandwiches for students over the course of my four years. However, I discovered that I could cashier, make more money, deal directly with people and occasionally have time to read a book during quiet stretches at the Student Center. So I spent most of my senior year in that capacity.

It was on one spring afternoon just prior to my graduation when I had finished my lunch shift as cashier, and, on the way out of the Student Center, stopped at the vending machine to buy a TAB. I was plunking quarters into the machine when someone tapped me on the right shoulder, and I turned to see Louisa J, a graduate student from the Art and Archeology Department standing behind me.

“Hi, Louisa,” I said as I retrieved my can of soda from the machine.

“Els, hi. I have a question for you.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I was wondering, do you know of anyone who would be interested in going to Venice, Italy for six months to au pair for my daughter, Anna, while I write my dissertation?”

Without missing a beat, I opened that door upon which opportunity had knocked.

“That would be me,” I said. We made arrangements for me to spend a Saturday afternoon getting to know Anna, at the graduate student housing, near the campus, and Louisa walked away. I stood there, stunned, opened my can of TAB, took a swallow, and considered my new trajectory.

Later that week, I met the infamous Anna on the “swim-date” Louisa had arranged for the two of us to get to know each other. We sat on our beach towels on the hot concrete pavement surrounding the small pool at the graduate student housing, I in my one-piece, and Anna, age 6, in her two-piece suit. She sat eyeing me warily, sizing me up, and after some consideration, voiced her question; “Why do you have a moustache?” I didn’t really have an answer. It probably was no coincidence that while in Venice, I began what was to become a life-long waxing regime. Occasionally as the technician wands the scalding wax onto my upper lip, I will see Anna’s innocent and curious face looking up at me, and as the wax zips off my lip, I can see the sparkle in her eye.

Falling

It was  December of 1999, and as we stood on the crust of a new pie, a new century, a new millenium. I remembered when I was in my pre-teens and I had forecast that in the year 2000, I would be forty years old. Of course, at that point, I never imagined that anything so heartrendingly literal would happen. Like the shortsighted computer engineers of the sixties, I imagined that I would remain forever 19 something, with nary a wrinkle on my brow, nary a love handle on my hip.

And here I was staring forty in the face, reconstructing myself as an adult, trying to redefine myself in my own terms, rather than by the recipe my mother left scratched into me. It’s hard cooking from scratch.

I tiptoed through the hotspots that I faced as a child with my son, who made me so proud with his accomplishments that I couldn’t imagine my ‘little’ criticisms would carry nearly the weight my parents’ did.

Chris and I had been fighting that day over whether he should do the extra credit math problems – six problems, true/false tagged onto the fifty that he was required to do. I tried to explain that if he did the extra six, it would raise his average on the rest of the page, and ultimately, his grade. Try explaining that to a ten year old who hasn’t covered averages yet in school. He did not want to do it. I unsheathed my tools of negotiation: first I cajoled him. He responded by nastily copying my cajoling in a sing-song, head swaggering thrust. I bribed – he called me on it. And ultimately, I threatened.

“Go to your room, then.”

“That’s blackmail,” he parried.

“No, that’s called parenting.”

“I’m not doing it,” Chris parried back again. “And that’s called kidding.”

Touché!  Ultimately, he did the math extra credit work. And the literature extra credit. The whole exercise took exactly 30 minutes, during which we saw the whole array of pre-tantrum warm ups. The banging on the table with the pencil. The whining, the falling out of the chair, the imagined injury and retreat to his bedroom to “recover.” The whole thing left me so exercised and tired that I considered canceling my gym membership.

Then we spent the rest of the evening in the living room, classical music playing, Chris playing his game boy, and me reading the New York Times.  At one point, he asked if he could come sit on my lap and I watched over his shoulder as he mastered this mind-numbing feat of dexterity his generation can do without batting an eye. If you’d told me when I was twelve that this is what I’d be doing on the eve of my fortieth birthday, I’d have called you a big fat liar. Isn’t it swell?
Another morning that week, we had been sitting in the dentist’s office, waiting for Chris to have his retainer removed. Popcorn stuck in the gum had caused swelling. His best friend, Mikey, was with us, and the conversation moved to braces.

“Are you going to get them?” Mikey asked Chris.

“Yeah. In about five months.” Chris said.

“What color braces are you going to get?” Mikey asked. “Silver or clear?”

“Red.”

“But Chris, if you get red, you’ll look like a vampire with blood in your mouth,” I said.

“Cool. Okay, how about blue?”

I wondered that morning if my parents had asked me about the color of my caps. Whether I’d elected to have the silver because of the way the question was phrased? Or had the question been phrased at all? I think not. But there’s a wonderful innocence about Chris’ desire to stand out with his blue or red grin. It was so untarnished, so replete of hurtful memories. Kids are such a miracle. Such a clean slate. You can fuck up so badly if you make the wrong decisions under pressure.

House guests, dentist whose golf game was interrupted, your daughter screaming and crying in front of you. Sunday afternoon, and the dentist’s lab is closed. Dr. Bailey was there all by himself, of course.  Make a decision quickly. You have to get home to make dinner for your husband’s Yale roommate and his family.

“I think silver. It won’t show up under the braces. You can get white caps after the braces come off.”

Did Mom ever regret that decision? Did she ever have a discussion with Dad about the wisdom of having a girl entering puberty with chrome fenders in her mouth? Was it to protect me from being attractive? It certainly stopped me from becoming vain. I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror. To this day I have trouble looking in the mirror.

That long ago day, December 14, 1999, I had housekeeping issues to discuss with my therapist.

“I can’t make it Friday, because I’m the room Mom and Chris’s class is having their party. ”
“You’re excused,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“And I’m anxious about going back to work and still being able to come.”

“We’ll work it out so that you can still come, but without hours and specifics, we can’t schedule.” (That sounds much more patronizing on paper than it did in person.)

What I was really worried about, more than scheduling and going back to work, as if that isn’t enough, was that I was stalled in therapy. I told Jimmie on the phone that I felt that I wasn’t “going anywhere.” Which of course is exactly what we’re working on in the analysis. That you don’t always have to be going somewhere. That just where you are is enough for the moment.

“I’m afraid, too, that I won’t have the memories to help me do this work.”

That I’m not interesting enough.

The previous Sunday, when we were walking into the Iceoplex rink, I was following Chris, carrying his hockey bag when my foot slipped off an uneven place in the pavement and I fell to my knees, scraping my left knee. Chris was in front of me, hitting his tape ball ahead of him like a puck with his stick, and didn’t see me fall. When I exclaimed, “Ouch,” he turned around and looked a little embarrassed by my clumsiness. Someone passing to my left put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Are you alright?” I didn’t meet their eyes (too embarrassed to have fallen) but said, “Yes, thanks. I’m fine.” I told Chris I needed to go get a bandaid – I could feel that I’d broken the skin on my left knee and didn’t want to bleed all over my new suit.

“Go ahead and put your skates on, sweetie. I’ll be right in,” He shouldered the hockey bag and started off, looking back over shoulder.

“Mom, are you okay?”

“Yes, sweetie. I’m fine. I just scraped my knee.”

It wasn’t until the next morning when I was getting dressed in stockings and a dress that I remembered an incident from when we still lived in Pittsburgh that had been unburied by my fall on Sunday.

We were walking home from the church in North Hills, Don, Larry and I. I must have been five years old, and Larry would have been about seven, Don nine. We had to walk through a little patch of trees which separated the back yards of the houses across the street from ours. We were running, me in my black patent leather shoes, which were  slippery to begin with. I stumbled over a tree root and fell forward, my exposed knee landing hard on the ground. Blood immediately glistened on my knee, and began to spill down my white knee socks onto my black patent leather shoes. I began to cry, both from the pain of cracking my knee and from fear that Mom would scold me for messing up my dress. (Blue with a white Peter Pan collar – how’s that for memory?)

Either my cries or my absence made my brothers turn around and come back to me. They helped me home (or as I said to my therapist, “I had them help me get cleaned up.”-important narration, as she pointed out, because it made me responsible for getting help, rather than being helped automatically by my brothers.) and I limped home, blood coursing down my shin.

I don’t have any memory of Mom or Dad in this event. Again, an environment where children are on their own a lot of the time. Coming home from church. Where were Mom and Dad that we didn’t all go together? Probably in the car driving around the long way. They’d probably made us promise to walk home.

“Take care of your little sister, Donny.”

I have a memory of this overwhelming fear of being scolded or punished for getting hurt – I was running in the woods. I should have known better than to run in the slippery shoes. My brothers would have been just about the age that Chris is now, and turned and looked at me with a feeling of helplessness and responsibility for my welfare and disgust at my clumsiness.

So, with regard to this process of analysis, my therapist asked, “Do you think I can help you if you’re bleeding?”

“It’s so complicated,” I said. “I’ve told you so much about myself over the past two years (I said three – Freudian slip) and I know so little about you. It begins to seem unbalanced. It’s not that I want to know details of your personal life, but it is just such a strange relationship.”

“It is a strange relationship,” she conceded. “It’s like no other relationship. I’m happy to answer your questions about me. When patients come, this process that we’re in  is always a surprise. We won’t solve your problems in your life, but we look at the sources of them. We go back and forth between the interior and exterior worlds. As you get deeper into the analysis, we find ourselves more involved in the interior world. And you find that while you have gotten to know me better, it’s really doesn’t matter.”

I’m also worried that I’m not interesting enough.

“What other times didn’t you feel interesting enough?” she asked kindly.

“At the dinner table.”

“At whose dinner table?”

“At my parents’ dinner table.”

“For example? What would have made you interesting enough?”

“There’s really nothing I could have said that would have made me interesting enough. Maybe if I could have said something adult.”

“If you said something adult you would have been interesting to your parents?”

“When else don’t you feel interesting enough?”
“At parties.”

Back to the alcohol. As Joye pointed out, the alcohol helped to erase my responsibility, gave me an excuse to act outside of myself. “To be more interesting.”

I acknowledged that my fear of not being interesting enough was a direct echo of my mom’s own sentiment about herself. She’d come out and visit us and we’d go to a party and she’d be so quiet. Coming home, I’d say, “Mom, you were so quiet. Why didn’t you talk more? She’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything interesting to say.’”
Stalled you say? No, you’re in it, kiddo.

“Can you tell me if you think I’m stalled? If I’m “doing this right?”
“That’s certainly a legitimate question. You aren’t stalled, and you’re doing just fine. The most important thing is that you say whatever is on your mind. If you are feeling stalled, then you tell me. If you can’t tell me, because you don’t think I’m interested, that you tell me that. If you are ever uncomfortable and don’t want to come any more, that you tell me that.”

“It’s not that I don’t think you are interested, because I think you are. It’s that I’m not interesting enough.” (does she see the difference? Yes, I think she does.)

                  The coda was that this particular evening, when I was walking the dogs for the final walk of the day, the sky streaked with pink, I fell again. I had rounded the corner of our street and had begun walking west when my right foot gave way under me. Almost as if in slow motion, I saw myself falling, my hands outstretched to break my fall, my right knee landing with a dull thud on the ground as it had thirty five years before on my way home from the Lutheran church. I heard the air expel from my mouth, “ooufff” like the sound you might hear from a football player going down after a hard tackle. I felt my charms from my childhood charm bracelet under my palm as I landed on the pavement.

I scrambled to my feet, maintaining my hold on the dogs’ leashes and started off briskly down the sidewalk, whispering to myself aloud, “I can’t believe I fell again today. And landed on that knee.” As I rounded the next corner, I looked down to note that my stockings were torn on my right knee, and blood was beginning to come forth through the scrape on my knee. As my eyes raised up, I had a moment of clarity- I heard a dog bark in the distance, a bird flew across my path and the sky was resplendent in its colors. I took a deep breath and found that my chest was free and my breathing relaxed. I padded along happily behind the dogs, not stalled anymore, but alive.

The Frog Died

What do you think it means when your fifth grader’s horned frog dies the morning of the first day of school? Do you think it has significance, like the rabbit’s dying in the old pregnancy tests? Does the frog’s passing signify that Chris is going to have a “killer” year in science? Or perhaps that the year is pregnant with possibility? All these and other options paraded before my mind as the two of us stood sullenly in front of the aquarium.

The poor frog’s spindly and dehydrated legs splayed out behind him. The wet washcloth in the sink and the freshly cleaned out water bowl next to the prostrate frog belied Chris’ assertion that “he was alive yesterday, Mom, when I cleaned out his water bowl.” I’m always after him to clean out the bowl. I usually ended up cleaning it out, and this time I didn’t. Just too busy? Or Frog Killing Mom?

“Well, then, it was just his time,” I said solemnly.  “Do you want me to take care of getting rid of him today while you’re in school, sweetie? Or is it something you’d like to do?”

“Would you do it, Mom?”
“Sure.”

“How are you going to do it?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll figure it out,” I lied, knowing the frog would go the way all our dead fish had gone, to ceramic bowl heaven.

“I wish I had the green frog. He moved around more.”

“Yeah, this guy was kind of sluggish.”

“How much was the green frog, Mom?”
“Honey, no more frogs.”
“Why???”

“I always feel guilty when I come into the bathroom and the frog’s cage is dirty. I don’t want to feel that way anymore. We’ll move your turtle into the frog’s tank and he’ll be much happier there with more room to swim around.”

“Okay.”

“Come eat your breakfast, okay?”

“I’m not hungry.”

As he sat in front of the cereal, bagel with cream cheese and bacon, all of it transformed in his mind to the dead frog. He dramatically took a bite of the bagel, then grimaced and rushed into the kitchen to spit it out in the sink.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Whenever something or someone dies, I’m not hungry.”

“Does the frog’s dying make you think of someone else’s dying, sweetie?”
“Noooooa.” If looks could kill, I’d be a goner.

“Well, I only asked because of your statement, which made it sound as though you’d lost your appetite before when someone or something died.”

“Do you have to correct every thing I say, Mom?”
“Sorry, sweetheart. Eat your breakfast, please.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Well, you will be pretty hungry at around 10:00am, and you won’t be able to concentrate, Chris.”

“Yes I will.”

After one piece of bacon and a small creamer pitcher of milk drunk directly out of the spout, I acquiesced, knowing that the battle was futile. He had one and a half sandwiches in his lunch box, an apple, some green peppers and carrots and a bag of chips. He wouldn’t starve. Besides, he has the power of the sacrificial frog to carry him through.

The Hummingbird Chronicles, part 2

August 3, 2013

After three days of just sporadic glimpses  of the birds, I decided it was time to return to HD to get a replacement fuschia, what seemed to be the only solution to regaining hold of our birds. We had observed the flight patterns of the birds in the recent days and saw that they were diagonally charted from above us to the left, to below us to the right. When I leaned my head over the balcony rail, I could see them stopping at a balcony about two over and two up from us. Someone had stolen our hummingbirds. I think that was when I decided we didn’t have to wait for the fuschia to recover and begin blooming again- we could start afresh with a new plant, bountifully draped in the luscious purple lobed flowers. I announced to Jimmie that we would go to HD after lunch and at about 1:30, we got into the car and drove to the HD nursery. I strode purposefully into the garden area, Jimmie following as quickly as he could. I wanted to dash in and out with our purchase to get back to the viewing platform as quickly as possible. I turned the corner and went to the fuschia area where I had bought the last plant, and much to my horror, the plants were gone, replaced by some ferns and other flower bearing plants. I sought it a young man to help me. I said, do you still have fuschias? No, he said, we are out of the season for fuschias. My face must have revealed my disappointment; Jimmie was standing there patiently waiting and I was loathe to tell him that we were out of luck. I plowed on. “You see”, I said, to the two young men who were now helping me, “we have had hummingbirds visiting our balcony and the fuschia plant, and we went away, and when we returned, the plant had died. Now the hummingbirds have left.”  The eager young man on the left visibly brightened and jumped into action. “Oh, I just took a picture of the hummingbird this morning over near the bougainvillea. And I also noticed a tag on some of the plants just outside that said hummingbird on them. Here, let me show you.” We trotted outside, leaving Jimmie to follow and join us. The young man took me to a table with lantana and some other low flowering plants and gestured over the table like a psychic over a crystal ball. “It was somewhere on this table that I saw the tag on the pot. Or,” he said, moving to his right to a low pallet on the ground filled with lavender flowered drought resistant plants, “somewhere over here. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“No,” I said, “this has been very helpful. I will continue to look at these two tables.”

As the young man walked back into the garden cage, I looked over the table and pallet, and picked up the lantana. I figured the bright orange and red flowers would at least visually draw the birds to our balcony. As I made my way back into the garden cage area, after telling Jimmie to go back to the car to wait for me- standing a long time is difficult for him,  froze in my tracks. There at the pallet was a hummingbird energetically and methodically sipping from the hundreds of pink flowers on the status-like purple flowered plant, as well as at the neighboring red flowered plant, similar in type – both looked like they were from the same genus as the Lavender plants we used to have in our back yard in Van Nuys.

August 7, 2013

This morning beginning at 6:45 AM there was a positive frenzy of activity at the feeder. Originally, when I had installed the birdfeeder to the railing of the balcony, I had used metal straps and after attaching the bracket to the banister, there was a 6 inch extra piece of metal that jutted out into the open air be on the balcony. At the time, I thought I should perhaps cut that off because it sticks out and it might catch someone’s attention to the balcony. But as our building ages and the time of its keep painting approaches, I thought I might want to leave that extra hanging there so it’s easier to remove this when the time comes to paint the building. And so I left it. In the past few days, that metal extra piece has become the perch with a male hummingbird who is trying to assert his dominion over the hummingbird guards will sit. With his neck cocked at a 90° angle to his body, he searches the sky for other approaching hummingbirds who might trespass in his domain. His angry cheeps match almost exactly the call that I found on Google when I searched for hummingbird calls. Yes, I did that, too.  And this morning the activity around the bush was extraordinary. One bird would arrive and feed intently at the blossoms of the bush. The second bird would arrive and sit at the feeder and suddenly the first bird would back up from the bush and the second bird at the feeder would back up from the feeder and a dog fight would ensue in the airspace directly parallel to the balcony. The winner of this dogfight would then retreat to the perch and sit there cheeping his success. The other interesting behavior which I observed in this morning was the bird who would come and sit on the balcony and try to feed from the blossoms without flapping his wings. Alas, he found that the blossoms were just out of reach and so he had to begin flapping again from the bush. This thrilling display of avian pride and aptitude is distracting, when you’re trying to read both the New York Times and the LA Times and do the LA Times crossword puzzle before going to work. I’m getting nothing done. It’s become an obsession. And you know what, it’s okay with me.

Saturday, August 10

Yesterday, late in the day, our planters arrived that we had ordered from Home Despot. I had stopped by Home Despot on my way home from work yesterday, only to discover yet again that the plants that I was looking for had already passed out of the season. Again I was pretty unprepared, and so I chose two plants that had bright orange trumpet flowers and some gardenias which I thought would be appealing to the birds. I brought them home and I put them out on the balcony while I took the cart back downstairs and when I came back Jimmie said that none of the birds had gone near the plants. So I figured that I would just take them back the next day to Home Despot. Which is what I did. This morning, I went to Home Despot And lingered in the garden area, looking to see if the hummingbirds would visit any of the plants. And sure enough, the hummingbird salesperson who had helped me the previous week went feeding at the  salvia plants, and also near some  purple plants with heads like Queen Anne’s lace. I put them in the cart and found a hibiscus plant with an orange flower and planter for that plant and went home. My stomach, was growling by the time I got home.  After breakfast I started with the planting process laying them out in the planters and then filling the planters with the soil. I used to do a lot of gardening, when Jimmie and I had first moved out to Los Angeles and purchased our starter home in North Hollywood. The backyard of the house was a vast expanse of concrete. It has little corralled areas which were full of sand and ultimately full of sand and cat poop once our cats have gone in the backyard and anointed the areas. We hired a man whose name was Jack and he came in with a sledgehammer he broke out all of the concrete in the backyard. A friend of ours, had arranged for him to come and we paid him and now I’m thinking seemingly small amount of money to do this incredibly difficult job. I think Jack ultimately died, which put a pallor on the garden. Hopefully not because of our garden project, but uncomfortably close to the conclusion of it. Anyway, that garden and the subsequent garden on our old street have been entertaining to me and also very satisfying. However when I begin working in south Los Angeles and driving back and forth to the valley I no longer had time for gardening, and so I turn the gardening over to professionals. Five years ago, when we move downtown to our apartment on the 11th floor facing the north we gave up our gardeners and pool man and the huge water bill that we paid every other month in the Valley. I think our water bill was more frequently than not in the $675 range. So now I think nothing of dropping 50 bucks at Home Depot for plants to go in the planter and I think nothing of the time that it takes to honeypots some plants and make the garden beautiful. It is a manageable space for me, financially, emotionally and physically.

So this morning, the only problem with my garden project was that the birds were very frantic  when I begin filling the planters  with soil and plants because I was standing directly under the feeder. I could hear their frenzied  chirps as they urged me to hurry to finish my planting.

August 13, 2013

I downloaded the video footage that I took the other morning at 6 AM when the hummingbirds were just beginning to rally. There are images of one and two and three and finally for hummingbirds darting around in the space of the viewfinder. What I realize now two is that my footage hummingbirds sometimes blurry and sometimes clear. I think this might be a result the fact that there is active construction going on but large 22 story building just beyond our balcony. The camera lens doesn’t know whether to focus on that movement or on the hummingbird movement. As result, occasionally I have very sharp images of the birds and sometimes I have blurry images of the bird and sharper images of the construction maybe it’s because of my advancing age, but I seem to be able to see every observation as a metaphor something larger. The footage of the hummingbirds, is a minute examination of a shared hobby with Jimmie. It represents something that is brought us together to experience the sheer and now in a very visceral and satisfying way. We truly take delight in reporting to each other as our attentions turned from the feeder to the newspaper in the morning, that oh, there is one there now. Or here comes Sheriff Sam,  the bully bird that sits on the perch and fights the  others off. The blurry construction in the background, represents a project that may or may not be finished in Jimmie’s lifetime. This is difficult for me to grapple with as I look out the window. It makes our appreciation of the feeder all that more poignant for me. And the images that my amateur camera is able to capture, become a talisman that we can share even after the sun has set and the birds have gone to roost in the trees. When I go off to work in the morning, when I return from work conversation naturally wanders to the success or failure of the future to draw the birds that day. Yesterday I came home from work, and when asking Jimmie when he did that day, he said I didn’t go to the park today. I didn’t want to leave the birds. And I understand that completely.

Meanwhile, the rest of our life proceeds apace. Jimmy goes off to the dentist to get his permanent crown. I go shopping for Chris’s 24th birthday presents. We plan a visit for next June with our dear friend Susan from South Africa. We think about whether to buy Red Sox dodger tickets next week. We watch a series of poor to middling Netflix movies on our new TV. But each day, I get up at six or 6:30, and set my sights on watching out the window for the inevitable return the hummingbirds.

The Hummingbird Chronicles

The Hummingbird Chronicles

Some recent more or less daily meditations on the hummingbirds who visit our urban balcony.

June 15, 2013 or thereabouts- after five years of living in an apartment on the 11th floor of a downtown condominium dwelling, my husband and I decided to get some patio furniture and try to create a garden for hummingbirds. On the north side of our building, we overlook the distinctly urban core of downtown LA. So where did this ludicrous  idea come from?

We have friends in the building who lived on the south or garden/pool side of our building on the 6th floor, their balcony surrounded by the tall trees that frame the back of the building and shade at least the first seven floors of the building.  They purchased a hanging metal bracket and a small feeder, which they filled with their homemade nectar of four cups water to one cup sugar boiled and then cooled before pouring it into the feeder. When we visited them, we watched as two or more hummingbirds cavorted at the feeder, eagerly sipping from the gaudy plastic flowers on the feeder. My husband and I were rapt by their tiny frantic beating of the wings, their tail feathers  fanning as they screeched into the feeder. It became a case of pure jealousy and greed- greed for the idea that we too might have visitors of such exquisite size and comportment right outside our living room on the 11th floor on the opposite side of the building.

All of our building’s balconies are large by urban apartment standards, opened onto by two sliding glass doors- one from our son’s room, which opens onto a stretch about two feet from glass to balcony wall, and one from the living room, to a more ample space abut five feet by 12 feet in length.

After returning one evening from Marcus and Suzy’s hummingbird kingdom, we began to discuss seriously to create such an area on our balcony. We discussed getting patio furniture that was high enough to see over the 30″ high solid wall that is topped with a 6″ diameter green metal railing. I measured the area we had available for the furniture and began scouring the Internet for cafe tables and chairs and found a lovely dark metal set with a glass table and comfortable looking seat cushions. I ordered it to be delivered from Home Despot and then we waited for it to arrive. That is one of the wonderful advantages to living in a downtown building with full time security. You can trundle off to work in the morning (on the bus) and come home to pick up your packages that have arrived in your absence.

So, several days later, our furniture arrived and I began to put it together, the reviews on line said that it took about two hours to assemble, and I thought I was better equipped than the average bear. I had borrowed an electric drill with a key attachment so that I would not have to manually tighten the screws. Even with my superior skill set (ha) and tools, it took me over two hours to assemble, but unlike most of my home improvement projects, I didn’t end up with extra pieces when I was done, and didn’t resort to using band aids so I figured I was ahead of the curve.

My husband Jimmie and I ate out the next three nights, enjoying the summer evenings outside on our balcony and waiting for the Saturday to arrive to put our Hbird plan into action.

Saturday arrived and I went to the closest Home Depot where I perused the feeder options. I was going to try the homemade nectar as well and figured I would find a classy, glass feeder with a metal base rather than the big red plastic variety which, frankly, to my eye, looked tacky.

I also had researched possible attractive plants for hbirds, and bought a large fuschia plant in a white pot and a plastic saucer to put underneath. The plant was about three feet tall, and was heavily laden with the purple and red bells-the plant is sometimes called the “earring plant” because of the pretty dangling flowers.

Fushia plant

I got some metal straps to attach the metal hook to the balcony upright to the far right end of the balcony area. I boiled the syrup per the instructions I found on the Internet, and waited impatiently for the juice to cool, filled up the feeder, and placed it on the hook. We sat there like kids on Christmas morning, waiting to see the splendor of our new pets. And we waited and we waited.

Nothing. So, I went back to the computer and researched what other type of plants I could get for the patio. I enlisted my Facebook friends with the challenge of luring hummingbirds to the 11th floor and was instantly gratified by their recommendations.

Back to HD and I succumbed to the lurid plastic red feeder. Life is short and I wanted some action on the balcony.

I had, by now, spent $650. On the furniture, the pole, the plant and the feeder. I couldn’t help it. Over that first weekend, I sat reveling in the birds’ very sporadic visits and amortizing the cost of each bird visit – oh, that was the $650.00 visit. Here comes the $325.00 visit, etc. by the end of Sunday, we had $35.00 birds coming. But they refused to drink from the feeder. They loved the fuschia plant and would come and sip at each flower, staying for abut 10-15 seconds each visit. We were in heaven.

I began to read more about the hummingbirds. I saddened when the evening gloam arrived, and leapt out of bed in the morning at 6:30 to see what the new day would bring. When I went off reluctantly to work, I made Jimmie promise that he would give me the bird report when I got home after work, and he did. It varied from day to day, and our moods mirrored the success of our balcony to draw the birds or not. Our couch sits perpendicular to the sliding glass doors and my spot is closer to the window, and I developed a kink in my neck from looking to the right so much to check the feeder.

We noted that a particularly busy time of the day was the time between 6:00 and 7:30PM. The balcony gets the morning sun, and infrequent sightings. In the evening, we could dine at the dining room table and see the visitors as they came and went.

We had scheduled our summer vacation to Cape Cod for July 5-25,with a five day visit to Williamstown included in the time. I was worried that the fuschia plant, which seemed extremely thirsty, would die within days of our departure and so fretted about our little friends not having the necessary sustenance to keep coming.

I hoped they they would resort to the feeder, and right before we set off, I changed the juice- yes, by now I had gone to the luridly red bottled “perky pet” brand from Home Depot. I bought some glass globes which are used to water your plants while you are away, and put all four of them in the dirt around the stem of the fuschia plant, with the hopes that the plant would be kept alive.

The almost three weeks we were away was magical, and only occasionally did I worry that the birds would go away while we were gone. At the end of this first week, our son was due to come back to our apartment for a few days and I urged him to water the plants and change the juice in the feeder, which he did. Alas, the fuschia was almost completely dead when we returned on the 25th. It’s crumbled leaf carcasses were strewn about the balcony floor and what remained of the fuschia bush was a bedraggled specter of its former self. In addition to the death of the bush (and presumably our opportunities to view the hummingbirds until it had been replaced) our TV had also sizzled itself into the hereafter; reports of its passing chronicled to us via cell phone during our week in Williamstown, by our son, Chris, who had returned from the Cape to spend some time in the apartment before heading back north to San Francisco where he works as a salmon fisherman and lives on the Autumn Gale, my brother’s 40′ fishing boat which is docked at Fisherman’s wharf. While we were staying in Williamstown, I sent a panoramic video shot of our fairly lavish hotel suite to Chris and said we were having a great time. He sent back a brief, deafeningly loud video surveillance of his current boat’s hold, which included the legs and torso of his captain, Goat, and the ceaseless din of the boat’s motor. I appreciated the importance of a few days in our urban aerie and its restorative value, and so the news of the death of the TV was made more poignant because it impacted Chris’ comfort.

Who says you have to starve in the theatre?

I got bitten by the theatre bug when I was in high school. Well, high school is not representative of the time period. I had the privilege, and yes, I know it was a privilege, to attend a swanky boarding school in New England.

I also had the great good fortune of having a theatre teacher who conveyed his sense of humor and delight in things theatrical to his students. I was gone. A lifer in the theatre. And my life has been so rich from those early days on that I have become that theatre life recruiter, that booster of the wealth of theatrical insight – that purveyor of hope in the shared community of the theatre.

And my life has been rich as a result of all the paths that this hunger has taken me down. I hope to share, and apologize in advance, for the crooked path of my stories. I have been listening to Mike Daisey’s monologues this week as I work out in the gym and what I know is that this storytelling which is so much a part of one’s theatre addiction is not intuitive, but learned. I hope you will bear with me as I learn the ropes and share the path.